Breaking Rules

not waving but drowning?

Photo: Jenny Downing

Time: 7:30 am
Where I am: Ensconced in my soft blue chair awaiting the coffee water to reach a boil.
Where I’m supposed to be: oh, about mile 5 of a fourteen mile run

Last night, I checked, nay, I double checked my alarm clock. I looked carefully at the time and date. I turned on the ambient ocean tones that drown out the rickety whirl of the ceiling. I lay my pretty little head on my memory foam pillow and slept the sleep of the secure.

Except that I failed to check the volume, after letting the kiddo play with the iPad/21st century advanced waking system/gizmo upon which said child plays games after having turned down the volume.

The volume. I forgot to check the volume. And while it would be easy to blame the kid, it’s not his job to wake me at 5:15 to get to the running group on time. He, in fact, obeyed the rules, which are often stated by me: “I don’t want to hear that noise, so turn it down.”

So, I mistakenly didn’t obey the other set of rules, the Marathon Training Rules, which state that if you miss a session, you will surely die. Do the rules really say that? “Well,” Eve said, “Not exactly.”

There are rules, or basic tenets upon which a runner will build her endurance, speed and strength for the end goal of kicking asphalt during a sanctioned 26.2 miles run. These rules are science-y and they clearly state that marathons are hard (duh) and that in order to run one It Is Vital That You Be At As Many Saturday Runs As You Possible Can, because It Will Be Good For You And Make Your Marathon More Successful.

I tried to figure out a way my husband could drop me off somewhere on the route. I imagined myself a kind of running spy, following groups of bleary runners trying to find my bleary group on a residential street somewhere in south Tulsa. I gave up. I broke the rules and I’ll pay the price.

I have scrupulously adhered to The Rules, doing every assigned run at the assigned pace. I have given up beer on Fridays in favor of glass of after glass of water. I have lived the rules. So I panicked a little bit when I woke too late to meet my group. Then, I resigned myself: In the long run it will be fine. I’ve run marathons before, and I will have some kind of run today. There are ways to make up for the lost ground. No big deal.

Which reminds me of Walt Whitman, who describes the poet’s prerogative when he wrote in Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Which is to say that writers break the rules all the time. I’m reading a memoir now (about which I’ll tell you next week) wherein the author chooses to shift her point of view from the first person to the second person, to masterful effect. Or take The Book Thief, whose narrator breaks I to the story so many times to define and elucidate that it’s both distracting and fascinating. Little Bee, one of my favorite layered and fraught stories, uses a crazy kind of flashback to tell the tale, in addition to multiple perspectives. I have read countless books where the grammar is pitiful, on purpose, or where words are misspelled, on purpose.

Here, though, it’s not a matter of the author’s alarm not going off to alert her to a possible infraction. No, these writers have the skill to choose when to break which rules. Like a marathon training program, rule breaking is best when applied to experienced writers. (I think I just called myself an experienced runner!)

Readers, Try This:
When you come across a section of text that makes you squirm, try to see if a “writing rule” has been broken. Does the narrator’s voice change? Are there leaps in time or understanding? Does something seem off off? Can you find a broken rule and ascertain why the rule was broken?

Writers, Try This:
Rewrite a passage in your work in progress that has been bothering you. Change the voice, the tense, the syntax. Introduce speaking grammar rather than writing grammar. Mess around with the rules. Break those babies, because you contain multitudes. See if breaking the rules liberates your idea.